We've all got 'em – Facebook friends we barely know.
An aunt's friend. Some lady your sister knew. A guy you never spoke to in high school.
But imagine having to talk to them ALL face to face. That's exactly what a Bloomington man is doing.
Recent law school grad Mikel McLaughlin, 35, set out a month ago in a rented red VW beetle on what has already been an eye-opening, inspiring trek to visit – in person! – his 355 Facebook friends, he told BringMeTheNews. (He's writing about everyone he meets at his "We're friends, right?" blog here.)
McLaughlin said there have been a few nerve-wracking moments right before he sat down with people he barely knows.
"But that was a big part of it. I wanted that awkwardness of meeting up with someone you rarely had any real contact with," he said by phone outside Medford, Oregon, Friday.
McLaughlin spent Thursday night with his brother's father-in-law, someone he hadn't seen in about eight years, but who welcomed him with in homemade pistachio ice cream. They found things to talk about – they are both lawyers.
"Walking up to the door, I'm never sure what is going to happen," he said.
McLaughlin also visited his first childhood friend, a guy he grew up with in the small town of Naches, Washington. "Without Facebook, that never would have happened."
He notes that there are a few Facebook friends who have not returned his messages about meeting. But McLaughlin said he has been struck by how open some of his more obscure Facebook friends have been to getting together – and how generously they have taken him in, "especially because I really don't have anything to offer them."
"All I have is my time," he said.
McLaughlin has lots of time on the highway to contemplate big questions about our lives in a social media age, when many people have lots of "friends" but few friendships, and interactions are less frequently face-to-face.
He said Facebook generally can be a wonderful tool for reconnecting – or a terrible one that rips away our ability to romanticize how people's lives turned out. "Unfortunately, sometimes people's lives have turned out really tough."
McLaughlin said his wife, Sage, supports his odd quest, and she stays in constant contact. "She was a bit concerned for my safety, and my emotional well-being. She was concerned that I would discover that people might not be that nice."
The idea for this project came to McLaughlin in several stages, but he had an epiphany when he thought about how some of his Facebook friends were un-friending him for lack of interest. He wondered: What if instead of letting people drift out of our lives – we reached out to connect?
"In the bigger picture, what if everybody did that? It'd be a lot harder to say bad things about other people on Facebook."
McLaughlin, who graduated from law school at the University of St. Thomas last year, just learned that he had passed the bar, so a lawyer job is down the road.
But first – the final leg of his West Coast swing, then a summer of meeting up with his Minnesota friends on Facebook. He intends to hit the highway yet again after that, to meet more friends.
"I'm feeling better about the world, and my place in it," he said. "I'm coming to the conclusion that people are basically good."